Discovering New Rhythms: Joyce DiDonato On Her Album “Songplay”

Discovering New Rhythms: Joyce DiDonato On Her Album “Songplay”

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has performed celebrated arias in arenas around the globe, from the world’s most prestigious opera houses to a maximum-security prison. Most recently, the star toured the United States with her new album “Songplay,” a record that spins selections from “The Great American Songbook” into a dizzying array of musical exploration.

Blurring musical genres with a diverse selection of jazz, tango and (of course) opera, the project is arranged by pianist Craig Terry and features musicians across disciplines, including legendary Jazz Players Chuck Israels, Jimmy Madison, Lautaro Greco and Charlie Porter. Earlier this month, DiDonato performed as part of Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series in the Appel Room, where ALL ARTS was there to capture the live concert for the series “The Set List.”

To mark the broadcast and streaming premiere of “Joyce DiDonato: Songplay” on March 24, we corresponded with DiDonato about how the album came together, the challenges she has faced singing across the genres and more.

 

What was your initial inspiration for “Songplay” and how did the project come to be?

It came from my deep love of song! Craig Terry, the pianist and arranger for this project, had the idea of transforming some of the Arie Antiche pieces that every beginning voice student encounters. We wanted to reignite the joy inherent in these pieces and to highlight the essential beauty of them.

How does your technical approach to singing these particular songs differ from how you might approach a traditional aria?

It doesn’t differ at all. I always approach music in the same way — focusing on the text and painting with my voice to tell the story. The fact that I am with a jazz ensemble and using a microphone just gives me a different choice of colors and dynamics than I may have with a traditional orchestra.

Joyce DiDonato with Craig Terry (piano), Chuck Israels (bass), Jimmy Madison (drums), Lautaro Greco (bandoneon), Charlie Porter (trumpet). Photo: Joe Sinnott.

Were there any specific challenges for you as an artist and musician in collaborating with musicians from outside the world of opera?

I learned what it means to have amazing rhythm! The jazz musicians have an impeccable, astonishing capacity for incredibly complex rhythm, and it was easily intimidating. But once I learned to trust the bass and drums to take the lead, we settled into the right kind of groove!

Was there anything that really surprised you through the process?

How organically our two musical worlds fit together, once we all agreed on a common language! The Baroque world has always thrived and demanded improvisation from its performers, so this fusion seems to feel quite simple, giving a different color to music we have loved for years, even centuries.

Joyce DiDonato with Craig Terry (piano), Chuck Israels (bass), Jimmy Madison (drums), Lautaro Greco (bandoneon), Charlie Porter (trumpet). Photo: Joe Sinnott.

What is your favorite thing about performing these pieces live?

Telling the story so vividly and bouncing off the improvisation of these amazing musicians around me. Not once do the pieces feel as if they are ever played the same!

What is your favorite song to perform from the album?

Impossible. Every single one is my favorite!

Do you think you’ll make more records like “Songplay”?

Let’s see how this one goes, first!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.